The Selected Papers of John Jay, Volume 2: 1780-1782 & Volume 3: 1782-1784

By Bernstein, R. B. | The Historian, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

The Selected Papers of John Jay, Volume 2: 1780-1782 & Volume 3: 1782-1784


Bernstein, R. B., The Historian


The Selected Papers of John Jay, Volume 2: 1780-1782 & Volume 3: 1782-1784. Edited by Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, Mary Gallagher, and Jennifer Steenshorne. (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 2012 and 2013. Pp. xlvi, 874; lvi, 726. $85.00 and $95.00.)

The volumes under review are the latest of The Selected Papers of John Jay to be published. (Volume 1 appeared in 2010; volume 4 appeared in late 2015.) John Jay [1745-1829]--diplomat, constitution-maker, secretary for foreign affairs, and first chief justice of the United States--may be the most obscure first-rank member of the group of farmers, lawyers, merchants, planters, and clergymen whom we call the Founding Fathers. An edition of his papers is long overdue. These fine volumes, edited by Elizabeth Nuxoll, Mary Gallagher, and Jennifer Steenshorne, handsomely produced and scrupulously edited, should help to restore Jay to his rightful place in American history.

Over sixty years ago, when Columbia University acquired Jay's papers from his descendants, Richard B. Morris launched a project to identify, edit, and publish Jay's most important unpublished papers. In 1980 and 1984, that project, published by Harper & Row, produced two volumes covering the first four decades of Jay's life. Those volumes complemented the still-useful edition by Henry P. Johnston, The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay (4 volumes; New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1890-1893)--conforming to Morris's intention.

In launching his Jay Papers project, Morris devised an approach to a statesman's collected papers significantly different from such institutional efforts as The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. His plan envisioned a selective rather than a complete edition, one which was skeletally staffed and published by a commercial press (like many late nineteenth-century editions). He thought that such a scaled-down project would require fewer resources and less time to finish--by contrast to such projects as the Jefferson Papers, which were attracting criticism owing to the time required to finish them. The problem with Morris's plan was that it was built on the assumption that his project could complete its work with no eye to the risks of human mortality; his plan was like an inverted pyramid with the editor-in-chief as the pyramid's point. Unfortunately, the project halted when Morris died in 1989; the Jay Papers project shut down several years later in 1996. Worse still, while Morris and Ene Sirvet were working on the period 1784-1829, Harper & Row allowed the edition's first and second volumes to go out of print. The project's end in 1996 seemed to seal the fate of any plan to edit and publish Jay's papers.

Fortunately, the Jay Papers project has resumed, under the leadership of able, skilled, and experienced documentary editors Nuxoll, Gallagher, and Steenshorne. The volumes under review draw on the 1984 volume edited by Morris with the late Ene Sirvet. At the same time, these volumes greatly expand the coverage of the original. Skillfully weaving together Morris's and Sirvet's work with their own, Nuxoll and her colleagues have reversed one key decision by Morris--they include documents previously published in the Johnston edition as well as unpublished papers, allowing scholars and readers convenient access to Jay's major writings, gathered in one place without the need to dig up a copy of the Johnston edition in a library or online. …

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